How ‘The Next Teddy Roosevelt’ Could Be a CEO

A business leader at the bully pulpit? T.R. would ‘roll over in his grave.”

Teddy Roosevelt laughing
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
Feb. 19, 2014, 4:57 a.m.

Two eras eer­ily sim­il­ar, the early 1900s and early 2000s: Massive eco­nom­ic change dis­places leg­acy work­forces, and new tech­no­lo­gies shrink the globe, com­plic­ate life, and re­vo­lu­tion­ize the way people com­mu­nic­ate and so­cial­ize. Out of one era rose Teddy Roosevelt, the “bully pul­pit” and the Pro­gress­ive Move­ment to re­store the pub­lic’s faith in so­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

Out of today’s tu­mult? So far, noth­ing as trans­form­at­ive as the Square Deal or the New Deal, and (for­give me, Pres­id­ent Obama) no sign of a polit­ic­al lead­er as ti­tan­ic as Teddy Roosevelt. We still ask: Who will be the next TR?

The usu­al as­sump­tion is that it will take a polit­ic­al fig­ure ““ a U.S. pres­id­ent, most likely ““ to be­gin the rad­ic­al trans­form­a­tion of polit­ics, gov­ern­ment and oth­er so­cial in­sti­tu­tions, the spade work to launch the next Amer­ic­an Cen­tury.

But maybe our era’s prob­lems are too big for one man or wo­man ““ out­siz­ing even the pres­id­ent.

Per­haps, as well, these chal­lenges are too com­plic­ated to leave solely to the polit­ic­al sys­tem, a dis­cred­ited and con­stip­ated rel­ic. It might be that we need to ret­ro­fit not just one bully pul­pit, but le­gions of them, manned by lead­ers of all walks of life: char­it­ies, col­leges, churches, and even (Lord help us) the en­ter­tain­ment and sports in­dus­tries.

How about cor­por­ate Amer­ica? That’s the ques­tion posed by pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­ut­ive Richard Edel­man in a present­a­tion pre­pared for the Da­v­os Eco­nom­ic For­um and shared this week at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity, a short walk from the White House.  

His “Trust Ba­ro­met­er” is an an­nu­al glob­al poll that meas­ures the pub­lic’s faith in gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, the me­dia and non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­iz­a­tions such as char­it­ies. The res­ults for 2014 are typ­ic­ally grim. Trust in gov­ern­ment fell glob­ally four per­cent­age points to an his­tor­ic low (44 per­cent), mak­ing it the least-trus­ted in­sti­tu­tion for the third con­sec­ut­ive year. Few people (20 per­cent or less) trust busi­ness and polit­ic­al lead­ers to make eth­ic­al de­cisions, to tell the truth, or to solve so­cial prob­lems.

People are clam­or­ing for gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion to pro­tect con­sumers from busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to the Edel­man polling, des­pite the lack of faith in gov­ern­ment. Think of it as a fox guard­ing a fox house.

The thin sil­ver lin­ing is that the pub­lic’s trust of the busi­ness com­munity has sta­bil­ized at 58 per­cent, 14 points high­er than gov­ern­ment.

“Busi­ness can­not in­ter­pret these shifts as a chance to push for de­reg­u­la­tion as it did a dec­ade ago,” Edel­man said. Rather, cor­por­ate CEOs have an op­por­tun­ity to fill the lead­er­ship void in polit­ics. They could lead the de­bate for broad in­sti­tu­tion­al re­form that meets the de­mands of a pub­lic buf­feted by eco­nom­ic and tech­no­lo­gic­al change.

Two points about the sur­vey. First, it has the risk of built-in bi­as, be­ing the product of a pub­lic re­la­tions firm that hopes to at­tract busi­ness cli­ents. Second, it high­lights a cred­ib­il­ity gap between busi­ness and gov­ern­ment that has long ex­is­ted. So why should you care? Well, the res­ults track with those of in­de­pend­ent poll­sters, and the ana­lys­is of Edel­man ““ a thought lead­er on in­sti­tu­tion­al trust ““ is pro­voc­at­ively counter in­tu­it­ive.

He says that step­ping in­to Teddy Roosevelt’s shoes would re­quire cor­por­ate chiefs to ex­pand their fo­cus bey­ond the bot­tom line. Edel­man’s polling re­veals that a ma­jor­ity of people be­lieve com­pan­ies can pro­duce profits while im­prov­ing the na­tion’s so­cial con­di­tions.

“That is a new bar,” he told the audi­ence of cor­por­ate ad­visers and con­sult­ants. “You have to go back to your CEOs and say, ‘You have to as­cend the bully pul­pit (be­cause) gov­ern­ment has stepped down.”

Stepped down? The White House would ob­ject to that char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion. Well aware of the Roosevelt-era par­al­lels, Obama is strug­gling to mod­ern­ize the pres­id­en­tial bully pul­pit after learn­ing that it’s harder to mo­bil­ize voters be­hind policies than for elec­tions.

He had Roosevelt in mind when he launched his “pen and phone” cam­paign, an in­crease in ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders (the pen) and out­reach to non-polit­ic­al lead­ers such as CEOs (the phone). Obama be­lieves that, like Roosevelt, he can use the pres­id­en­tial bully pul­pit to edu­cate the Amer­ic­an pub­lic about the na­tion’s chal­lenges and choices, and that, like Roosevelt, his leg­acy will be com­pleted by suc­cessors.

In a new book, “The Bully Pul­pit: Theodore Roosevelt, Wil­li­am Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journ­al­ism,” his­tor­i­an Dor­is Kearns Good­win doc­u­ments how Roosevelt trans­formed the pres­id­ency while ex­pand­ing the role of gov­ern­ment in na­tion­al life; how Taft built on his pre­de­cessor’s mo­mentum; and how the new me­dia of their time (the so-called muck­rakers) edu­cated and in­spired a dis­il­lu­sioned pub­lic. In her pre­face, Good­win said her goal was to give read­ers “a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what it takes to sum­mon the pub­lic to de­mand the ac­tions ne­ces­sary to bring our coun­try closer to our ideals.”

Can cor­por­ate ex­ec­ut­ives sum­mon the pub­lic to ideals great­er than their profits? Yes, they can. Will they? Even Edel­man chuckled at the thought. “Teddy Roosevelt,” he said, “would be rolling over in his grave.”

NOTE: For more from me on the de­cline in in­sti­tu­tion­al cred­ib­il­ity, read “In Noth­ing We Trust” and “Meas­ure of a Na­tion: We Are the Change.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.